The music was divine, the children’s voices heavenly, the acoustics in the old church near perfect. The deep baritone in one of the front pews was pitched not to the treble of the choir but the lower notes of the accompanying organ.
For the first “Oh come let us adore him”, the baritone fell silent. At the second he joined in gently. At the third he came in on full boom, contributing his part to a joyous wall of sound that filled the church.
Never mind the Christian setting, the Christian message of the lyric, this was one atheist who was thoroughly enjoying the singalong. I know, because that man was me.
And I know I was not unwelcome in joining in, either. The vicar, bless him, made it quite plain in his delightfully ecumenical speech at the close of the school concert that all were welcome, of whatever religion or none.
He stressed, as he does every year, that tolerance, and caring for others, were the important features we should all share and encourage.
A message and an attitude which – of course – is not confined to the Church of England, but which nevertheless seems to sum up that church at its best.
An old favourite joke of mine came up again the other day. Maybe it isn’t really a joke at all. It’s more a statement of attitude, and one which at heart I share, true unbeliever though I am.
It goes like this: “I’m sick and tired of all these Christians who have forgotten the true meaning of Saturnalia.”
Celebrating the birth of a new year, a new season, at the very dead of winter, is a splendid tradition that goes back a lot further than the birth of Christ.
New religions have always thrived best when they have adopted, and subtly altered, the rites, rituals and holy places of the older religions they have displaced.
Christianity has always been masterful at this, which probably accounts for its very survival in early centuries, as well as its widespread success from medieval times on.
A tradition of drinking, carousing and eating well with gathered family and friends around the winter solstice was well established in Rome – and no doubt a great many other places – long before Christianity was around to lay claim to it.
We know from their often astonishingly precise alignments that stone-age monuments such as stone circles and burial chambers were built by people who placed great importance in the winter solstice.
Santa may have got his red coat from a Coca-Cola promotion (he used to be in green) and be more associated now with consumerism than with Christ. But if you’re looking for “true meaning”, his origins appear to lie in the High German, Old English or Anglo-Saxon god Woden. So perhaps we should celebrate him every Wednesday.
Isn’t there something decidedly pagan in the Yule log, the ceremonial tree and the wreath?
And, come to think of it, don’t some of those old carols we all enjoy singing so much have more than a touch of the older religion about them? The greenwood and the fertility rite. The Holly and the Ivy.
So yes, we can all enjoy the lovely church buildings, the lovely music, the singing and togetherness.
And yes, we can – and should – all remember those less blessed than ourselves, be it through famine, war, pestilence or poverty.
And, as the great Dave Allen used to say, may your god go with you. At this time as at all times. Whichever god that may be. If you happen to have one.
We were talking at breakfast the other day, as you do. (Well, maybe you don’t, but we do – it’s a crucial part of what makes us the close family we are.) And, as we do, we had the radio on in the background.
“That’s a good question,” said a voice over the airwaves in response to I know not what. Prompting our daughter, 15 and thoughtful, to ponder: “What IS a good question?”
Which, when you think about it, is a pretty good question itself.
The answer depends, of course, on what you want to get out of it. Some questions just want a ‘yes’ or ‘no’, ‘tea’ or ‘coffee’ sort of answer. But in an interview – on the radio, say, or for a newspaper column – you want something that provokes a fuller response. Something, ideally, that makes the other person (and the listeners, or readers) think a bit.
A good question might be one the other person can’t answer – or doesn’t want to. In which case it might be more honest of them if they replied: “That’s a bad question.” Which, strangely, no one ever seems to do.
We’re about to enter a general election year, one in which the outcome is as hard to predict as I can ever remember. We are bound to be hearing a lot of interesting questions over the next four or five months. Can we expect to hear them answered straightforward, honestly – or at all?
Now that, I think you’ll agree, is a good question.